New York: Schocken Books, 2002. 446 pp. $28.95.
In her lucid and accessible new book, Tikva Frymer-Kensky applies her skills as a deeply learned biblical scholar, her training as an Assyriologist, and her personal approach as "a feminist who loves the Bible" to an original and elucidating study of representations of women in Hebrew Scriptures. Frymer-Kensky does not apologize for the fact that the Hebrew Bible, an androcentric text written by men about male matters, reflects a patriarchal society in which women had limited abilities to determine events. As in her earlier book, In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth (1992), she argues that we must look beyond the gender-based inequity common to all ancient societies and recognize that biblical writers do not represent women as lesser creations who are other than men in their basic human qualities. In fact, the underlying theme of this volume is that women figure prominently in so many biblical narratives because they often serve as a metaphor for Israel itself. Thus, "The Bible's view that women were socially disadvantaged without being essentially inferior provided a paradigm through which biblical Israel did not have to equate its own powerlessness with inferiority" (p. xxii).
Frymer-Kensky reads biblical literature closely and on its own terms, eliminating the layers of traditional interpretation that often influence how people understand biblical stories and characters. Her careful analyses, based on her own translations, explore the nuances of the original Hebrew and also place the passage at hand in its larger cultural context. While Frymer-Kensky includes references to traditional biblical exegesis and contemporary feminist scholarship in notes to each chapter, this book is not primarily aimed at an academic audience. It is directed to general readers who are interested in what these stories and characters "might mean to us in our own culture today, when the lives of most women are dramatically different from the lives of the biblical figures who have so fascinated us throughout the millennia" (p. xxvii).
Reading the Women of the Bible is not intended to be a comprehensive encyclopedia of all biblical women. Significant female figures such as Eve, the Matriarchs, and Miriam are not discussed or are mentioned only in passing. Frymer-Kensky's goal is to reveal the meaning of what she calls the "women-stories" as a group and to elucidate the concept of "woman" in the Hebrew Bible; she does so by demonstrating that overall patterns and recognizable themes begin to emerge when biblical narratives are read closely and in relation to one another. Thus, her book is organized according to the four categories into which Frymer-Kensky believes most of the Hebrew Bible's narratives about women fall. These thematic divisions consider women as victors, victims, virgins (and potential brides), and voices of God.
"Victors" are those biblical women whose actions had a decisive impact on Israel's destiny. These powerful women come from different social levels and include heroines and villains, Israelites and foreigners. Among the forces for good whose stories are explicated in detail are Rivka, the midwives of Exodus, Zipporah, Rahab, Deborah, Yael, and the Shunammite woman of second Kings; the malefactors include Potiphar's wife, Delilah, and Athaliah. Frymer-Kensky notes that the triumphant stories of the "Victors" may also be read as tales of national survival, since narratives about dynamic women who succeeded despite their marginalized place in society must have conveyed a powerful and paradigmatic message to a people who felt weak, small, and vulnerable. …